“The Collins Case” by Julie C. Gilbert

"The Collins Case" by Julie C. Gilbert — Kimia Wood — Christian Despite having a “Mystery/Thriller” cover and blurb, this book is actually a “Christian/Inspirational” story. If I had known better what to expect, and if the pacing had moved faster, I might have enjoyed this much more.

Slow Start

The story is ham-strung from the very beginning, where for the first chapter and a half, the only conflict is that Rachel Collins is unequally yoked – married to an unbeliever.

The scenes of the “happy little family” living their lives and unaware of the calamity awaiting them is a classic writer move to get readers to connect to the characters. Unfortunately, I had recently read the blurb and knew they got kidnapped – and I was aware of the author-ly tricks at work – and so was very un-invested.

If I was advising the author, I would suggest beginning with Mr. Collins coming home and discovering melted groceries on the counter, his wife’s car in the garage, her phone on the counter, and his family nowhere to be found. (This scene already exists, but is sapped of tension since we’ve already witnessed his family be snatched.) This kind of scenario is visceral enough to connect with readers without the lead-up…a lead-up that lost me before the plot even began.

I also don’t need Rachel to muse about how her husband contributed their two toddlers’ hair color, but she gave them their curls. If this was my best friend, I could be interested in listening to that. Seeing as it’s some lady I’ve just met this chapter, I really can’t care less.

Character Pile-up

In addition to Rachel and her husband, FBI Special Agent Julie Ann Davidson gets a narrating viewpoint. Julie Ann is Rachel’s high school BFF, and so investigates the family’s kidnapping more or less unofficially. Ann also has a partner, who has a tendency to stand in the doorway of her cubicle staring into space meaningfully before saying anything.

Julie Ann is annoyed, and so spends time thinking about her stale cookies and cold coffee while she (and the reader) wait for something to happen.

As far as I can tell, Julie Ann and her FBI friends did almost nothing to push the plot forward. They didn’t track down the bad guy’s lair – they were given that info by someone else. They didn’t plan a rescue attempt – they were handed a rescue plan, complete with what parts they should play, by someone else. And they didn’t even shoot the bad guy – someone else did that.

While Julie Ann and co. do give “someone else” a conduit and resources to rescue the family, there wasn’t really any “mystery-solving” that happened. Cutting her point-of-view and focusing on Rachel Collins and her husband could have tightened the narrative quite a lot.

Evil Master-Mind! Walk Casually for Your Lives!

After a third or so of the book, I started skimming. I was still reading, though, because 1) we have a reading challenge this year, and I need to finish books, and 2) I’m a completion-ist, and wanted to find out what the bad guy was up to.

This poor fella will not be joining the ranks of Darth Vader and Loki. Afflicted with the same disease as the rest of the book, he took an entire scene to call Rachel after kidnapping her and her two toddlers, complain that he didn’t have time to explain why he didn’t have time to explain, then stare thoughtfully into space before gloating a little. If it were me in that room, I would have slammed the laptop shut and made him ring back if he really had something so very important to tell me.

As for sinister plans, his resembled that of Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, with the added disadvantage that it wasn’t even complicated enough to look clever.

As for motivation? What’s behind him kidnapping several entire families and holding them in his super-secret cultic compound? Money. Gun-running money, to be specific. Not religious devotion to a twisted ideal, not even a revenge plot for a wrongfully-slain love interest. Just a little smuggling.

Perhaps I didn’t see enough of his operation to get a good feel for its size, scope, or realism – which you can partly blame on the shortness of the book. Some of Alistair MacLean‘s villains are a little short on exposition and depth, but they sure make up for it in panache and presentation.

Sorry, Evil Master-Mind. It’s not your day.

Preach the Good News!

This book is much more of a Christian evangelism experiment than a mystery story. Julie Ann spends an entire chapter singing hymns to her dog to restore her religious peace…and the emotional filler is taken up not by romance (until a lightly handled one in the second half – thank Heavens) but by spiritual/trusting-God angst.

If the author was aiming at young, enthusiastic, Christian readers, I think she landed a bullet right in the center. Agent Ann shares the gospel no less than TWO TIMES in this story, which makes her 200% better than 90% of Christians in Baptist churches (according to LifeWay Research).

Is sharing the gospel important? DEATHLY IMPORTANT. Should Christians not be afraid to spill the Truth to gangster snipers on their deathbed? FEAR IS OF THE DEVIL. I’ve had dreams about that kind of thing…like, literal dreams.

Did I want to read about it?

The Fifth, please.

I get nervous writing gospel presentations in my stories, partly because I’m afraid I might make that a cop-out for sharing the Good News in real life. I’m also nervous about putting Acts of God in my books because it seems cheeky to write lines for God in a way. And frankly, having the husband convert at the end was as predictable as the FBI reuniting the family (so it’s not a spoiler, since it’s so predictable). Not saying anything about the author’s beliefs or faith through this, but it’s one more way I would write it differently.

As the Bullets Fly…

The climax was pretty cool. FBI agents getting in a real, live shoot-out with baddies and even an anti-vehicle rocket launcher.

Then the Evil Master-Mind is sniped down (again, leaving the FBI as “passive” observers), everybody trucks off to the hospital, and the tension dies.

At 80% through the book.

Spiritual themes are explored, “heartstring-tuggers” are employed, and the tears and pages go on and on until finally it’s all wrapped up. If I had been invested, I might have reacted with more emotion…but since I’m a cynic alert to the ploys of authors, even at a certain character death I didn’t cry, but just said, “Whoa, she went there,” and kept reading/skimming.

A Little Friendly Advice

I recently read Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, which also starts slowly. However, there’s only one narrator, who is the driving actor of the plot, and the mystery is deep enough to handle being cautiously and gently peeled back layer by layer until all is revealed. It also didn’t purport to be something it wasn’t.

The professional editing of The Collins Case was better than many indie works out there. My own first published work isn’t promoted on any of my online platforms, because I was still very young when I wrote it. Even if it’s not worth it to the author to revisit The Collins Case, I hope she’ll find a good, honest critique partner to help her grow in some of these areas.

It’s important to get more authors and books that elevate Christ and His gospel. But I also agree with a recent post on social issues in fiction that said, “You’re more convincing when you’re not trying to convince.”

If readers can tell you’re trying to evoke a specific emotional response, they might just dig in their stubborn heels and remove themselves from the experience you’re trying to create – which is an amazing story.


Disclaimer: I downloaded a FREE e-copy of the book during the promotion for Indie Authors e-Con 2018. I was not required to write a review of any kind.

The Collins Case is available on Amazon – and, as of this writing, free to download.

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